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Spinning Toward Autocracy

April 11th, 2023 | 6 min read

By Bonnie Kristian

Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman, Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2022, 340 pp., $29.95 pb.

Hitler hath slain his millions, and Mao his ten millions. But what do we make of Putin?

His title is the very democratic “president” of Russia. He has no concentration camps, no Holodomor, no Great Leap Forward, no diktat of atheism. He wears suits, not epaulettes, and has political enemies poisoned or intermittently jailed but never hauls them off to a gulag. It seems unlikely, were he to die tomorrow, that his body would join that of another Vladimir, Lenin, in a public mausoleum. Putin’s Russia isn’t free. But is he really a dictator?

He is, say Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman in Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century, but — at least until he invaded Ukraine earlier this year — Putin generally has not been a “fear dictator” in the familiar, 20th-century sense. His rule has rather been emblematic of a new breed of autocrat, the “spin dictator” for whom it is almost never worthwhile to remove the velvet glove and flaunt the iron fist.

At a swift 219 pages of text, with half as many again devoted to notes and references, Guriev and Treisman have penned a compelling, well-researched, and accessible case for why “after all the brutal manias of the 20th century … we still see new autocracies rising from the ashes” (ix). Pursued through forays into authoritarian discipline, propaganda, censorship, electoral procedure, and foreign policy, their argument is that dictatorships did not all die in recent decades, but many were changed.

Where once most despots ruled through fear, employing gruesome violence to cow the populace into submission (9), now they tend to take a lighter touch. As the liberal world order developed and enlightenment values gained sway in halls of power (38, 169), spin dictators learned to ape them. These smooth-edged autocrats are willing to become, in Aristotle’s phrase, “not harsh, but dignified,” to use, following Machiavelli, “simulation and dissimulation” instead of brutality to achieve their ends (14).

Fear dictators blared lies from loudspeakers, displayed enemies’ mutilated bodies, murdered en masse, and only sometimes deigned to stage their faux elections. The spin dictator’s propaganda is subtler, layered, decentralized, often ironic. Enemies are staidly prosecuted over taxes or libel; state murders are secretive and rare; and though a spin dictator may well fix an election, he frequently needn’t bother.

The contrast is reminiscent of Neil Postman’s famous sketch of two dystopias, George Orwell’s 1984 vs. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in the foreword of his landmark social criticism, Amusing Ourselves to Death. “Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression,” Postman wrote, that is, by a classic fear dictatorship defined by violence and overt censorship. “But in Huxley’s vision” — the vision Postman deemed more prescient while writing in the 1980s, the first decade in which spin dictators outnumbered those who ruled by fear— “no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”

The spin/Brave New World analogy isn’t as exact as fear/1984 — in fairness, Huxley couldn’t model his fictional tyranny on spin dictatorships yet to come, while Orwell had the Soviet Union at the ready. Yet the core idea of mostly painless manipulation as the main mechanism of social control is much the same between the oppression Huxley imagined and that which Spin Dictators documents. “This new model is based on a brilliant insight,” Guriev and Treisman contend: “Instead of terrorizing citizens, a skillful ruler can control them by reshaping their beliefs about the world. He can fool people into compliance and even enthusiastic approval. In place of harsh repression, the new dictators manipulate information” (4), adopting an aesthetic of democracy and burnishing popularity among subjects who (usually) don’t require external restraints to exact obedience.

By this standard, then, Putin’s Russia is indeed a dictatorship. Indeed, he was a favorite exemplar in Spin Dictators, which published just over a month after the Ukraine invasion. In the months since, both authors have said Putin has moved from spin to fear. “By attacking the postwar international order and changing his strategy of control at home, Putin has gambled with his own future,” Treisman wrote in an in-depth analysis, “Putin unbound,” in the May/June 2022 issue of Foreign Affairs. “Initiating a war that does not go according to plan is a classic mistake that has undermined many authoritarian regimes.”

And what of that postwar international order? At the end of the volume, Guriev and Treisman turn from description to prescription, delving into recommendations for the West to resist dictatorship in its wily new form both at home and abroad.

Perhaps inevitably, some of this discussion concerns Donald Trump, but here and throughout the work, Guriev and Treisman are admirably restrained in their mentions of the former president. Canny readers will spot connections between some of the spin dictators’ tactics and Trump’s antics — particularly where false allegations against the media are concerned — but the authors’ light touch will extend their work’s shelf life and readership alike.

Yet while there are some Trump/spin comparisons to be made, maybe more striking are the contrasts between our squabbles and fears in the West and the dark reality of true autocracy. We worry, rightly, about loss of civil liberties, degradation of our institutions, and rising political hostility. In the blurbs on the back of Spin Dictators, The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum and scholar Francis Fukuyama raise alarm over the future of democracy itself.

But Guriev and Treisman, having run through histories of grotesque slaughter and a censor in every newsroom (91), are more sanguine than their admirers. “[A]lthough dangers are real, the alarm seems premature,” they write (202). Despite setbacks, the last three decades have seen enormous gains for freedom, democracy, and prosperity worldwide (208). And even if the West “sink[s] into spin,” such “backsliding is more likely to end in the spin of a Bolsonaro than the carnage of a Pinochet. Although the former is troubling, the latter is clearly worse” (218-219).

As a matter of physical safety and material quality of life, that’s hard to argue — who wouldn’t take the risk of caning in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore over the Cultural Revolution or Great Leap Forward in Mao Zedong’s China? Or, today, would you rather be a citizen of Turkey or Saudi Arabia? Russia or North Korea? But a spin dictatorship is still a dictatorship, and its control and ruination via manipulation of our very hearts, as Huxley depicted, is still a sinking to avoid. That’s why it’s disappointing that Guriev and Treisman’s final chapter, where they turn to policy recommendations to curtail spin dictatorship, is the weakest in the book.

Their proposal of multinational mass surveillance in partnership with Big Tech never considers the likeliest outcome of such a project: that autocrats themselves would use the same technology for more nefarious ends. Back doors, once built, can be opened by anyone who can make a key — or arrogate one. Similarly undeveloped is the notion that liberal democracies can somehow overhaul organizations like the EU, NATO, and the UN to deprive dictators of power. These organizations already have autocracies, some with veto rights, among their memberships. How is the overhaul supposed to happen without their consent? The proposal of “an alliance of liberal democracies to defend democracy” via its “greater moral authority than any individual state” must be received skeptically by any who can recall 2003’s Coalition of the Willing — however good its founders intentions, these organizations have a proclivity toward mission and membership creep. And, if our history with human rights conventions is a guide, the United States wouldn’t join anyway, rendering the alliance, if not powerless, certainly far from the moral-democratic colossus Guriev and Treisman want to see.

This concluding chapter, happily, is also the most inconsistent, which means those unsatisfactory ideas are presented alongside better ones: that the West “welcome modernization — even in our adversaries,” because “if a developing China seems a problem, a China blocked from development would be a bigger one” (211-212); and that we “put our own house in order” — shoring up civil liberties, rejecting abuses of power — because “[s]pin dictatorships exploit the vulnerabilities of democracies” (212). That latter task seems particularly urgent with another contentious election already bearing down upon us, for vulnerabilities we have indeed.

Bonnie Kristian

Bonnie Kristian is the author of Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community (2022) and A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today (2018).